Hormesis, solar warming, asteroids, and other matters


Mail 758 Sunday, January 13, 2013

There is also a View today http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/?p=11443


Linear No Threshold Theory Wrong UN Admits – Media keeps Quiet

For 60 years the Linear No Threshold theory (LNT), that low level radiation is harmful, has been the foundation of the anti-nuclear movement. It has never had any scientific justification whatsoever and this has now been publicly acknowledged by the The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).

The fears engendered by this scare story have been directly responsible for the standstill in nuclear energy generation and thus in most energy generation overall in the world since 1970. Without that scare the world would be producing at least twice as much electricity and would thus be thought twice as well off.

Such paradigm shattering news is of massive worldwide significance and has thus been ignored by virtually all the world’s conventional media <https://www.google.com/search?aq=f&hl=en&gl=us&tbm=nws&btnmeta_news_search=1&q=unscear+radiation+levels&oq=unscear+radiation+levels&gs_l=news-cc.3..43j43i400.7688.25281.0.26016.…0.0…1ac.1.zB9GUOcFckk> with the almost sole exception of this from Forbes:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/01/11/like-weve-been-saying-radiation-is-not-a-big-deal/?ss=business%3Aenergy <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/01/11/like-weve-been-saying-radiation-is-not-a-big-deal/?ss=business%3Aenergy>

Neil Craig

As far as I am concerned, the linear damage all the way down hypothesis was disproved years ago, and the balance of evidence strongly favors the theory of hormesis. The linear damage theory says that the dose make the poison, and even a little bit of radiation damage is too much; hormesis says that a little bit of radiation can actually be good for you. It does NOT state that if a little is good more is better.

We discussed all this years ago at http://www.jerrypournelle.com/archives2/archives2mail/mail311.html#hormesis

And more recently at http://www.jerrypournelle.com/mail/2010/Q1/mail616.html#hormesis

See also http://a-place-to-stand.blogspot.com/2010/03/radiation-hormesis-spreading-question.html

And in fact I have been writing about this since my days as science editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. There is a section on radiation hormesis in A Step Farther Out http://www.amazon.com/Step-Farther-Out-Jerry-Pournelle/dp/0441785832

But one need not accept hormesis to realize that the lowest levels of radiation don’t have much effect on large mammals.


And another long time consensus may be dissolving into something nearer truth:

Solar Variability and Terrestrial Climate

Dr. Pournelle —

An interesting press release on the National Research Council’s report, "The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate."

Solar Variability and Terrestrial Climate


The "consensus", if you will, of the workshop which generated the report is that even small variations in solar activity can have a significant effect on the earth’s climate. Some of these effects are thought to be through complex mechanisms. (Occam advised that things shouldn’t be more complicated than necessary, not that they should be simple.) (The report can be purchased or read and printed online.)

One of the statements that caught my attention:

"Indeed, the sun could be on the threshold of a mini-Maunder event right now. Ongoing Solar Cycle 24 is the weakest in more than 50 years. Moreover, there is (controversial) evidence of a long-term weakening trend in the magnetic field strength of sunspots. Matt Penn and William Livingston of the National Solar Observatory predict that by the time Solar Cycle 25 arrives, magnetic fields on the sun will be so weak that few if any sunspots will be formed. Independent lines of research involving helioseismology and surface polar fields tend to support their conclusion. (Note: Penn and Livingston were not participants at the NRC workshop.) "

On the other side of the issue, the U.S. National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee has come out with its latest draft report in which it states that temperatures in the U.S. have risen 1.5 F since 1895 and will continue to rise 2F to 4F in the coming decades and that this increase is certainly anthropogenic. (I recommend Judith Curry’s website in general and her current -and no doubt future – commentary on this report. http://judithcurry.com/ , http://judithcurry.com/2013/01/12/draft-u-s-climate-assessment-report/#more-10910 )

As an aside, you have periodically mentioned the dragging of heavy cannon on sledges across the frozen Hudson River in 1776, Here are a couple of other events:

Jane Long wrote of surviving the winter of 1821-1822 with her three children (the youngest born Dec. 1821) and a slave, abandoned at a fort on the Bolivar Peninsula, in part by eating ducks and fish hacked out of the ice on Galveston Bay.

In February of 1895, local papers reported that ships at Galveston were frozen at their moorings and an errant mule was observed to walk from Galveston to the mainland on the ice covering Galveston Bay.

It doesn’t get that cold today. I, for one, am grateful.


The facts remain. Although the media keep telling us that this was the warmest year in history, they don’t make it clear that “warmest” is a very relative term, and by any interpretation it was “not very much warmer” than the previous “warmest year” – and given that temperatures have been falling for years, it doesn’t take much. We really don’t have the means to get average temperatures over large areas to an accuracy of a tenth of a degree, even today with satellite measurements; and if we are trying to compare to temperatures taken back in the days of mercury thermometers, accuracies to within a degree are questionable.

The Earth has certainly warmed since 1895, which was about when Arrhenius did a back of the envelope calculation on what might be the effect of doubling the atmospheric CO2 and came up with the notion that CO2 additions from industry would create a greenhouse effect and raise global temperature. Since he was from Sweden he didn’t think this was necessarily a bad thing.

The actual rate of global temperature rise since 1900 hasn’t been greater than the rate of rise in the last half of the 19th Century, and for the past ten years there doesn’t seem to have been much rise at all.

I am a bit astonished that there is not more literature on what might be the optimum temperature of the Earth. Of course what we have seems “normal” but might there be a better temperature?

But we don’t have much control over the solar radiation and sunspots, which may have more effect on Earth’s temperature than our belching factories. And for that matter there is more belching in China and India than in the US and there will be more to come.

See also http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jan/11/2012-probably-not-the-hottest-on-record-after-all/


HARRIS AND BALL: 2012 probably not the hottest on record, after all – Washington Times

Your argument has become main stream.


Well , we will see…


NASA’s James Hansen Declared Obama Has One Week Left To Save The Planet! — ‘On Jan. 17, 2009 Hansen declared Obama only ‘has four years to save Earth’ — Only 7 Days left!

Obama Mission Accomplished! ‘Obama succeeded in reversing global warming’ Global Temps Cooling Over past 4 years

Alert: NASA’s James Hansen Declared Obama Has One Week Left To Save The Planet! — ‘On Jan. 17, 2009 Hansen declared Obama only ‘has four years to save Earth’ — Only 7 Days left! <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=0fc410c522&e=e57bd7cb9d> — UK Guardian Jan. 17, 2009 <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=c9d801d93d&e=e57bd7cb9d>

Obama Mission Accomplished! ‘In Jan. 2009, Hansen gave Obama 4 years to save the planet – and he succeeded in reversing global warming’ Global Temps Cooling Over past 4 years! <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=85b0cdcf7e&e=e57bd7cb9d>

Flashback 2011: Promise Kept – Planet Healer Obama Calls It: In 2008, he declared his presidency would result in ‘the rise of the oceans beginning to slow’ — And By 2011, Sea Level Drops! <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=ea50a51c99&e=e57bd7cb9d> — Obama ‘presided over what some scientists are terming an ‘historic decline’ in global sea levels’ — ‘Obama should declare ‘mission accomplished’ and take credit!’

Climate Depot’s Morano: ‘It is just possible that Obama has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men — since sea levels actually cooperated with Obama’s pledge! <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=114bb7762a&e=e57bd7cb9d> ’

Laugh Riot: 190-year climate ‘tipping point’ issued — Despite fact that UN began 10-Year ‘Climate Tipping Point’ in 1989! <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=109f68b073&e=e57bd7cb9d> — Climate Depot Factsheet on Inconvenient History of Global Warming ‘Tipping Points’ — Hours, Days, Months, Years, Millennium — Earth ‘Serially Doomed’

National Journal: ‘Guns, Debt, and Climate Change Give Obama Shot at Immortality’ <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=9a089d025d&e=e57bd7cb9d>

Obama To Personally Take Control Of The Climate: ‘Obama may intervene directly on climate change by hosting a summit at White House early in his 2nd term, environmental groups say’ <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=03be7b6c0b&e=e57bd7cb9d>

UN’s top climate official: Obama should deliver strong response to 2012 record-breaking heat <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=bdffdfc4d2&e=e57bd7cb9d>

Obama ‘seriously considering’ hosting climate summit <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=12d0528d1f&e=e57bd7cb9d>

Ralph Nader: You know what the U.S. needs? A brand-new $340 billion annual bad-weather-prevention tax The best solution for climate change is a carbon tax <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=b7b9de0bd4&e=e57bd7cb9d> – ‘With annual emissions of 6.8 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents, the U.S. would collect $340 billion each year.With revenue like that, a carbon tax could be used to help balance the budget’

WashTimes: EPA busts private-sector budgets with rules that cost $353 billion: ‘The equivalent of all the wealth generated each year in Virginia’s private-sector economy’ <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=470ce90ed5&e=e57bd7cb9d>

EPA under investigation for skirting email transparency <http://climatedepot.us1.list-manage.com/track/click?u=87b74a936c723115dfa298cf3&id=a77701a0bb&e=e57bd7cb9d

We’re still here, too.


Apophis Asteroid May Destroy Some Satellites In 2029.


Roland Dobbins

And it will be back again in 2036. Perhaps closer still. At about 800 megatons, or 17 Tsar Bombas.


Among the many petitions submitted to the White House petitions R us program was one to commit to build the Death Star by 2016. The White House has answered the petition.



Earth is getting greener (WSJ)


“Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally?

Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, overdevelopment and ecosystem destruction.”

* * *

"Mad Science" means never asking, "What’s the worst that could happen?"

–Schlock mercenary


I Will Not Despair

Dr. Pournelle:

I share your concerns about the future. Like you, I’ve read enough history, and lived enough of it, to recognize some of the warning signs. It “feels” a lot like 1933. Dangerous ideologies and nascent aggressors abroad. A messianic regime at home; drunk with ambition and contemptuous of those in the way of the bright new future. A shaky world and domestic economy. It would be easy to despair.

Do not! We may face a crisis which we cannot prevent. Many voices, yours included, warned of the dangers ahead and were ignored. Or worse. Articles were written, speeches made, stories told, of what the future could bring if we chose The Easy Path. Some listened, most did not. The Easy Path is seductive. Despair is also seductive.

I will not despair! I want to, but I refuse to! Despair is the surrender of the spirit in the face of adversity. It is the suicide of the soul. I deny myself the right to despair! I owe too much to the past and the future of mankind to succumb to it.

I will invert the placidity of despair into cold and thinking action. I will turn my hand and mind to limiting the effects of the coming crisis. I will work to preserve and protect what I can. I will warn those who will still listen; especially the young. I will enter the Wilderness Years unbowed. I will live long enough to see this version of the Easy Path die. I will make this the decade when Socialism died.

I will not despair.

Rick Crockett


Freedom is not free


Of all the things you have written and/or commented on which I have admired (and there are many), I think the one which has most impressed is the aphorism:

Freedom is not free;

Free men are not equal,

and Equal men are not free.

Though its truth seems quite self-evident to me, it is an astonishingly short and powerful argument against affirmative action and central planning. I do not recall that you ever attributed it and I do not recall ever having seen it before and so assumed that you had originated it.

But as Newton said: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." So I did a little looking. The aphorism has been attributed to quite a few people, including anonymous.

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), in his book, “The Constitution of Liberty”, (see also "The Road to Serfdom") wrote much the same thing, but less succinctly, than your aphorism:

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either the one or the other, but not both at the same time…(W)here the state must use coercion for other reasons, it should treat all people alike, the desire of making people more alike in their condition cannot be accepted in a free society as a justification for further and discriminatory coercion.

Warm regards,

Larry Cunningham

I probably learned it as an aphorism from Hayek but I have known it for so long that I no longer remember how that particular formulation came about in my head. The sentiment has been known for a long time of course.

Freedom is not free.

Free men are not equal.

Equal men are not free.

The Spartans called themselves The Equals although they acknowledged dual kings. They submitted to the most stringent discipline and rules known at the time. The Athenians did not call the Spartans free.


"liberal" and "conservative" working assumptions

Dear Mr. Pournelle:

It occurs to me that one of the points of frustration between "liberals" and "conservatives" (I don’t think either of those terms are very useful) is that each tends to have its attention caught by a different range of data. Here’s an instance of "takers" which I found striking:


Apparently, it’s becoming less uncommon for banks to foreclose, evict the occupant, and then not follow through with the foreclosure. The bank takes the insurance and the tax write-off, and the former occupant discovers some time later (apparently, the bank is not legally required to tell them they still own the property) that they’re responsible for upkeep, taxes, etc., on a house they can’t live in and can’t sell.

To my mind, this sort of fully legal "taking" by institutions with economic power seems to amount to something like a blow against the social contract. This gets me angry, whereas selfishness and stupidity on the part of people with little economic power just reinforces my usual low opinion of the human race.


Allan E. Johnson


Bunny Inspectors – update

http://bit.ly/UMfBAX <http://bit.ly/UMfBAX>

Colorado bureaucrats want compulsory life-jackets for dogs in pet centre pools.


Fair Warning: fascination alert.

I really like this.



Well I warned you


SUBJ: Carthage surrendered their arms first buffy willow

We all know "Carthago delenda est". Rome razed Carthage, killing 90% of its people and selling the rest into slavery.

But did you know the Carthaginians voluntarily surrendered their arms to Rome first? I did not.


One more historical vote against gun control.

"Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose" – The more things change the more they stay the same.



Yes. I learned about that in 8th grade world history. Apparently they don’t teach that sort of thing now.

And when we disarmed they sold us
And delivered us bound to our foe…


Dad hires online assassins to slay game-obsessed son:


I guess that’s one way to get the kid out of WoW.



An essay in respect to your stated views upon seeding the oceans.

TO: Dr. Jerry Pournelle, Chaos Manor.

Sir: The following is something I wrote that is probably too long to publish, but having thought about your highlighted item on seeding the ocean and your views on such I did at least feel motivated to A: Finish it the next day, B: Submit it properly in spite of how long it takes to get to the point it’s making.

Jaron Lanier is a sort of techno/computer "guru," even though he hates the word: http://www.newyorker.com/ reporting/2011/07/11/110711fa_fact_kahn?currentPage=all

I say "sort of", because the article mostly relates the difficult upbringing that he had, as well as initially enthusing upon how he is a computer visionary. But it also archly defines what a "visionary" often is: "a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills."

It also illustrates, in some ways, how intellectual contrarians such as he often only decide to take a morally conservative position once they have fully explored the sheer gruesome extent of the damage that their initial enthusiasm has created, often far after the potential for remedy has been lost.

Worse still even than with Mr. Lanier, are people who were spoken to beforehand about the possible consequences of their actions, and determinedly, they ignored you. It is simply that, like Eeyore in a den full of Tiggers, if you are dumb enough to try speaking to them about their behaviour, you will not get listened to as a point of principle, since sunny positivity is always sought on the planet where they live. Lanier has this in his defence: He has woken up.

With him in mind, let us move on.

My problem with Bob Zubrin is he is Tigger: http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/336808/greens-attack-mariculture-robert-zubrin?pg=1#

I am Eeyore. http://io9.com/5952101/a-massive-and-illegal-geoengineering-project-has-been-detected-off-canadas-west-coast

It does not strike me as a good idea to be doing this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which involves Manatees, but which culminates an idea raised in the Ridley Scott film "Prometheus," which has been exhibited to much public confusion in the cinemas recently.

I would assert that the issue neglects a number of what economists might call "moral externalities" to the otherwise nice idea of seeding the ocean with any materials to create Plankton, aquatic life, and cause the absorbtion of carbon dioxide. Lurking in the background is a serious moral rubicon that has then been crossed, is hard to articulate, and yet is permanent in it’s effect. I think it is a quiet reason why Bob Zubrin is so keen upon the position that he is taking in regards to this matter, but is not going to admit to openly.

Manatees are creatures that live in Florida. The are universally loved by the state and the tourists that watch them, are herbivorous and are even, in the eyes of modern society, that most important of things: Victims. They are continually killed and injured by boat propellers, and suffer from habitat loss due to those rotten humans and their waterfront property developments. (Many of which are owned by President Obama’s notional Rich People.) I am sure that you understand the idea.

The problem is that they are also parasites. Freeloaders upon humanity even, and would have migrated out of harm’s way years ago were it not for an amazing phenomenon that nobody anticipated: Power stations.



On a cold night, Manatees LOVE power station water. We have created a situation where a species of creature is quietly dependent upon us for their winter habitat. It is not even as if their loss is one of extinction, they exist in numbers in the Caribbean and would long ago have migrated away as a deme, as they are nomadic creatures and their habitat has been slowly lost to urbanization. They have stayed because humans are providing them with warm water, and other humans now seek to manage them.

Thought: What moral duties do you eventually possess to organisms that are totally dependent upon your active intervention for their existence? It is different to a policy of not knowingly doing any harm and leaving nature alone, like we try to do presently, but now represents one which instead sees us literally actively intervening to create and maintain life?

Look how far this one got, found in the outfall of an oil refinery. I wonder how much that C-130 cost, in order to ship him back to Florida: http:// www.savethemanatee.org/news_feature_ilya_09.html

Although you are right about Bunny Inspectors, I think that I have gone one better than such, in that Federal Laws mandating that power generators have a LEGAL OBLIGATION to keep Manatees warm is an example of government that can be done without. If you are not happy with Federal Bunny inspection, everyone can at least exercise their right to only attend magic shows that don’t feature rabbits in the act, and eventually such nonsense stops. Good luck living without TECO’s electricity, however.

The problem is that this is what is going to occur with ocean engineering of the form envisaged. There is no method of managing the migratory patterns of, for instance, the great whales that traverse the region annually down to Baja California to calve. Will they be unaffected? In the presence of free food, I doubt it. Will the Killer Whales hang around, given the presence of such near shore life? We have seen an answer already in the article, and they are also keen upon eating great whale calves if they can find them….It’s why the larger whales travel down to the bottom of California, in that it gives their juveniles a chance at gaining some size before they migrate back north.

A broader, more distressing idea then follows: Consider the idea that having seeded the ocean, an assumption arises that anything that grows there is only present due to an element of human volition. This is akin to farming animals, and thus means the natural world is defined as property. Like with Samuel Maverick in the old west, any newborn cow that didn’t have a mark was one that he could claim was his. So it will be here, in that anyone fishing in "our" waters is taking "my" fish. Anticipate that the Haida Indians, having spent their money seeding their water to create their crop will quickly regard Killer whales, seals and ultimately any other organism who shows up in a boat as taking their livelihood. When it is considered how much fish a 30-strong killer whale pod can notionally hoover their way through, and how fishing grounds are known, I anticipate that presently animals and people will start getting shot. This is a pretty bleak view, but frankly a realistic one given the way that some parts of the world work when A Bonanza is flashed in front of them, particularly if it is to be found out of sight of the land in international waters.

To finish, by contrast to what these people are doing, I would emphasize that there are perfectly ethical methods by which it is possible to obtain all of the cultured fish and protein that the rising prosperity of the planet will demand. The one which I am familiar with is on-land aquaculture and aquaponics, which sees animals such as Salmon raised on land using tanks. It is commercially proven and it’s only impediment, the provision of fish meal, is lessened using modern developments in what is known as the "Floc" system: This is a system where phyto and zooplankton are capable of being artificially grown and used for fish farm cultivation, and so helps limit the ecological atrocity of fish meal production that had previously rendered aquaculture uneconomic. (As in, fish being pulled from the sea to create fish meal pellets….That are then fed to other fish for commercial sale in a fashion that made minimal economic sense when the overall energy expenditure to do so was evaluated.) This approach is now taking off as a field and frankly seems more moral.

What does the film "Prometheus" have to do with this? Some have criticised the film for problems in it’s written structure, and some of the extremely dumb decisions that the characters make in order to get the action going, but several minor details of the film are fascinating in terms of what the story is advancing towards.

For instance: Why is it a plot point/revelation that Merideth Vickers is Weyland’s daughter? But nobody else is aware of this? Put politely, it probably means that she’s illegitimate.

Why does the star map, that The Engineers have given to each ancient culture on Earth, lead back to a planet that is basically a biological research/weapons development facility? China Lake or Fort Detrick, in effect?

Why does The Engineer that they find in the hidden spaceship instantly want to murder the humans that have awoken it, resulting in the conclusion that the creature wants to destroy the life that exists on earth?

And yet why do we see, at the start of the film, and later confirmed the scientists, one of their number actually creating us?

They perhaps hate us because one of their number has acted without the consent of the community, and are largely angry out of the obligation that we now represent to them. One of their number has created new life, and others must now be responsible for it….And why should they be so obliged? What duties and sacrifices might this potentially involve?

Maybe that is why Bob Zubrin thinks that this is a endless debate worth avoiding, but if you consider his history, he has long stated that he thinks terraforming other planets is moral. I would not have a problem with such a view were it not for the fact that the fashion in which this act is being suggested is underhand. It is being done by a clandestine precedent occurring TODAY rather than a rational choice by those who eventually will possess such power, and I assert that he knows this. By turning our own planet into a "terraformed" environment of sorts, he is effectively advocating the idea that there is no moral justification against not doing so elsewhere. "We do it on earth, so why not everywhere else?" is the resultant argument, because it is the truth when we treat our own planet in this fashion.

The only problem with that is that there is potentially no justification for such an action beyond profit, as the Haida Indians seek, albeit dressed up in the language of "benefit to the environment," by a corporate promoter. The creation of life is thus reduced to an act of profit, and as this promotional website for the Prometheus film implies, the Weyland corporation serves as the hypothetical endpoint for such logic, conducting the Terraforming of new worlds for profit:



It strikes me as being a long slow slide into moral sleaze. Backsliding your way into the universe going "what’s the problem!?" then suggesting "Well, someone will stop me if I’m doing anything wrong!" then "Awwww! Aren’t these Manatees cute. Slow your boat down to avoid hurting them!"

moving eventually to "We’re from the government and you may not build a housing development here," towards a finality: "Give us money to protect Manatees, and don’t ever question why you should."

A road to serfdom, perhaps?

Every step of that is logical, and has the possibility of occurring upon an even larger and worse scale than simply our own planet…As engineers, what responsibilities might we accidentally wind up acquiring? Just like that man you described in Kansas, who is now expected to pay child support for a separated, lesbian couple’s child, because he was the sperm donor.

Best wishes and thank you in advance for the time taken to read this overly long letter. I intend to renew my subscription but am regrettably short of money at present. Hopefully what I’ve written has been worth a read.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew S. Mooney,




Aaron Swartz, JSTOR, academic publication, and the public good.

View 758 Sunday, January 13, 2013


LA Times Obituary


Aaron Swartz was a Harvard University student who used his computer skills to collect a large number of scientific journal articles from JSTOR, the institution which controls the publication and release of most academic journals and which is also trying to achieve control of many historical publications. Many of those publications were scanned in the Google activity which is now stalled in litigation; I have seen no criminal charges brought by the Obama Department of Justice against the operatives who did the Google scans.

Swartz was arrested by the Department of Justice in July, 2011 and charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, malicious computer damage, and a number of other federal felonies, and sought to fine him $1 million and send him to federal prison for 35 years.

Swartz had downloaded some 5 million academic journal articles. His contention was that JSTOR collected money for access to academic journal content, but did not pay the authors or copyright holders, and made it prohibitively expensive for millions of potential readers to access results of publicly financed research. JSTOR is a non-profit corporation.

The government contends that Swartz intended to release the documents in some kind of pirate activity, although he had not done so at the time of his arrest. Since he was a fellow at Harvard/MIT he had legal access to all the documents, so his ‘criminal intent’ in downloading them seems to be the essence of the charges against him.

After Swartz’s arrest the JSTOR corporation dropped all civil charges against Swartz (possibly in reaction to the indignation of a great number of Internet users). The Obama administration continued prosecutorial activities, widely publishing its intention to make an example of Schwarz, and emphasizing that he could be jailed for 35 years. “Stealing is stealing” said one US Attorney.

On Friday, January 11, 2013 Aaron Swartz was hanged in his Brooklyn. NY apartment. It was quickly pronounced suicide. Swartz reportedly had been depressed by the possibility of a near lifetime in Federal prison for downloading but not releasing the academic journals.


Swartz’s death will undoubtedly spark new debates on intellectual property and the purpose of copyright. In particular, aggressive copyright protection of articles describing and reporting scientific activities largely funded by public or tax exempt sources, may not serve the constitutional purpose of copyright law:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

JSTOR has a complicated membership and access fee structure. It is not cheap, although members of institutions often get free access (apparently Swartz was one of those). JSTOR states emphatically that it is not a publisher, but it is often the only means of access for a number of academic journals and historical works. It pays no royalties to authors or copyright holders of the material it makes available for money (but which, it insists, it does not publish).

After Swartz’s arrest JSTOR testified that Swartz had returned all the documents, had published none of them, and there was no reason for prosecution. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/07/swartz-arrest/

JSTOR is not a cheap operation, but a great deal of the content JSTOR charges for access to are papers reporting publicly supported research.

Making scientific, engineering, historical, and general academic research results, most funded by publicly supported institutions and often by public grants, is an important means of promoting the Progress of Science and the useful Arts; and the authors of most of those works benefit from the publication and promulgation of their work in academic journals. Of course they are entitled to publish their works through university presses and or private publishers, and such works are protected by copyright in the usual manner; but academic publications to be cited in other scientific studies need to be available to those who want to verify the work. Research repetition and verification is an important part of the scientific method. Restricting access to the publications cuts deeply into criticism, a perhaps unintended but still unfortunate result.

Swartz contended that JSTOR, having acquired a monopoly on electronic distribution of much of academia’s publication, made it expensive to obtain access to much publicly funded research, and of course it paid nothing to the authors or copyright holders although charging the users high prices.


Academic journals have always been expensive. They were traditionally printed by letter press, and the publication and mailing costs were enormous. When electronic publication became possible through the publicly financed original Internet backbone which connected academic institutions, costs of journal publications were not noticeably reduced. CDROM and electronic publishing programs took over from typewriters and letter presses and made the actual production costs of journals a great deal smaller, but subscription fees generally did not drop accordingly. Some went up.

It is not at all clear that JSTOR has passed those cost reductions down to the public that uses them, nor has there been any great incentive to do so. The government continues to inject money (through grants, but more by making loans that make students debtors for life) and academia absorbs all that money and raises prices. Some University systems have taken advantage of the computer revolution to reduce publication and distribution costs, but in many cases this is not reflected in the access costs to those outside the system, even though much of the funding for academic research comes from public money.

Aaron Swartz challenged all this. He may well have been wrong to do so in the way he chose; but he faced criminal charges and penalties greater than he would have faced had he taken physical copies of the journals, or for that matter, had he been charged with rape.

For more on this see the EFF memorial https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/01/farewell-aaron-swartz and the law blog published at the time of the arrest and updated today. http://www.litigationandtrial.com/2011/07/articles/series/special-comment/aaron-swartz-computer-fraud-indictment/


Most of my readers will know that I am no opponent of the legitimate copyright ownership of intellectual property. I make my living off sales or donations for access to my intellectual property. Authors, artists, composers, inventors, and other intellectual property creators have moral and ethical rights to their creations, and it is in the interest of society to protect that interest. This was considered worth its own clause in the Constitution of 1787. On the other hand, taxpayers and others who support public institutions and research have some rights too: particularly when the actual creator of the intellectual property are not being compensated, and in fact are often losing deserved esteem from citation of their works and general promulgation of their papers. Writers write to be read. Samuel Johnson observed that no man but a blockhead ever wrote for anything except money, but that isn’t quite true. Some do write to be read, and in the case of scientific research, widespread promulgation is essential to the scientific process.

It is not at all clear that the JSTOR monopoly is the best way to achieve the distribution of scientific and other academic research efforts. Perhaps it is, but I have not seen the case made. At the very least they might publish the salaries and perks of the executives and directors of JSTOR and ITHAKA. Indeed, one wonders why they do not, since they are quite proud of being non-profit corporations.

There might also be some explanation of why Swartz was considered such a threat to the nation that the Department of Justice threatened him with 35 years’ imprisonment. He wasn’t Bernie Madoff. He wasn’t Nidal Hasan, or Bradley Manning. But the Administration considered him an enemy of the people and used a great number of public resources (40% of which were paid for with borrowed money) to hound him even though the ‘victim’ (JSTOR) declined to press any charges.

It’s all very curious. Perhaps now we will learn more. Aaron Swartz, RIP



A sad day for the exchange of knowledge

From a NYTimes obituary:

In an online broadside directed at prosecutors, Mr. Lessig denounced what he called the federal “bullying,” and wrote, “this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.”

Of the indictment, he said, “The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”

Rune Aaslid